It is always important to stimulate interest at the beginning of a new unit, particularly with students for whom school has not been very successful. The movie How to Make an American Quilt will be a starting point for this unit. The story is driven by a group of women coming together for their annual quilting bee who also happen to be longtime friends. As they create the squares of the quilt, which is a wedding gift for the granddaughter of one of the women, they tell, in flashbacks, their stories of how, as young women, they met and married their husbands, had or did not have children, and how the choices they made evolved. Their stories are represented by the squares that they are creating for the quilt, hence it is a story-quilt.
While the film is a story about these women, the men and how the men treat their women can be a topic for a lively discussion. One of the men rationalizes that because he is an artist he cannot help but be attracted to women other than his wife. His wife must deal with this. Another man has the opportunity to seduce a woman, admitting up front that he is married. One woman finds out that her husband and her sister slept together and she must deal with this: what were the circumstances; were they totally wrong? Most women had children, but not all; some were by choice and some were by chance. One young, unmarried, black woman has a child by a young white man. What are her choices and circumstances?
As this unit explores the lives of women created by women writers, this film reminds us that grown women, most with grown children and grandchildren, were once young women who chose their destinies and who experienced, and, in some instances, are still experiencing, the joy and pain of these choices. Just as these women develop and gain depth of character in the film, the authors of the stories develop their women and give them depth of character. To sharpen this awareness it would be useful to assign certain students to track specific women in the film, sharing with the rest of the class what they learn about these women as the film progresses and in giving their judgment as to whether these women made good choices. Since a few of the men play significant roles in the film, students could also be assigned to track them, sharing their profiles of these men and critiquing their decisions and actions.
The granddaughter who is making up her mind whether or not to marry the young man who has proposed to her is a foil that makes the telling of the women’s stories seem very natural. The granddaughter is spending the summer in the home of the woman who hosts the annual quilting bee. Thus while the women regale her with the stories of their marriages, she weighs the pros and cons of her own.
Following viewing and discussing the film, the students can engage in an art activity in which each student makes his/her own quilt square that represents the past/present/future of his/her life. This could be achieved with paper or scraps of fabric glued on fabric or paper. When finished, the squares would be joined as a class quilt and hung on a wall to represent the make up of the class. Dianne Marlowe is also suggesting this activity in her unit, because these two units can be taught together by two teachers, and each unit commences with the viewing of this same film.
A variation of this quilting activity would be an effective activity at the conclusion of each story. Following the reading, discussion and writing activities for each story, students will create a story-quilt square for the main character in the story, representing memorable images about the main character in the story. At the end of the unit, or as the unit progresses, each student can assemble his/her squares into a mini-quilt that will be an artistic expression of the unit. Ideally, students will be able to use these squares to recall the most significant aspects of each main character.